What to Teach Journalism Students When Their Field is Under Attack?


Early August is when I usually begin planning for the basic news reporting course I’ve taught for more than 20 years to University of Minnesota journalism students.

What was different this summer was the backdrop: harsh, attacking noise from our U.S. president’s resurgent campaign branding journalists the “enemy of the people.” The vitriol has gotten particularly sharp recently, with angry crowds at Trump rallies shouting obscenities at reporters for merely showing up to do their jobs.

The spectacle bothers one former student, who recently posted a photo of a CNN reporter’s ambushed stand-up at a rally showing a man wearing a “F*** the Media” T-shirt, his face twisted in hate. My student posted: “What if your profession were being targeted in this way by scary/angry/violent people?”

As I prepared for the fall semester, I wondered about my incoming students. How would this bedlam shape their views when they showed up for my “boot-camp” news writing course, which gives them their first real experience with the hard work of journalism? Would it frighten them? Embolden them? Confuse them?

For me, it raised the question of what I should be teaching them. Covering a speech is difficult enough, requiring students to not just listen to the speaker but also to understand the context of the event, figure out what’s important, seek balanced views, verify assertions, accurately report quotes.

Did I need to add “steel yourself to nasty crowd insults” to the list of skills? Maybe.

The truth was that none of the summer’s unpleasant sideshow is changing the fundamentals of my syllabus. I still put these newbies through the paces of what they need to know to be reporters: how to write ledes (journalism lingo for the beginning of an article), how to attribute, how to get to the point in a story, how to interview, how to write news clearly on deadline.

I still demand they get stuff right, that they care about every inaccuracy and that they understand the critical importance of verifying when a claim is a fact—or not.

We still talk about the core values of the profession: to seek truth and report it, to minimize harm, to act independently and to be accountable and transparent. We still talk about the importance of the First Amendment.

Most of them will no doubt have the usual anxieties about newsroom jobs, which have declined 23 percent in this country within the past decade. I will assure them, as I have for years, that the critical thinking, writing, data analysis and communication skills they gain in the major will apply across a range of careers. Besides, if they love journalism, they’ll find a way to work in it.

But I admit, these new aggressions against journalists don’t lend themselves to glib or rosy lesson plans. These are troubling times for U.S. journalists. To not respond is not an option. It’s my responsibility to help students see what’s happening today and to prepare them. So this semester, I will advise students to cultivate resilience and courage beyond their expectation. Reporters have always needed thick skin to endure criticisms from people who fear scrutiny or who claim they’ve been treated unfairly. Abuse now extends to trolling, from which they can find no refuge. Their digital management skills of that must be savvy, and their skin simply needs to be thicker.

I will prepare them for risk, too. Danger has always come with reporting. Students shouldn’t think they’re immune. Within the past decade, 621 journalists have been killed around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, including the four shot at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., this June. While that gunman’s attack appeared to come from a personal grudge, and while American reporters have not typically faced the life-threatening conditions of reporting in other countries, the propensity for violence is elevated by the fact that our commander-in-chief openly denigrates the press with vile name-calling that could easily tip an imbalanced mind.

Finally, I will tell them that waffling about their purpose won’t serve them. They’ll have to believe wholeheartedly in the tenets of journalism—that facts don’t have alternative facts, that truth is verifiable, that the powerful must be held accountable and that journalists, if they are doing their job, are champions of the people.

These students have a lot to learn. Some come into class not knowing a lede from a logo. But my hope is that they will quickly understand that the louder the abusive clamor against their journalism, the more important their journalism will become for our democracy.

Gayle Golden is a Morse-Alumni Distinguished University Teacher and a senior lecturer at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.


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